I don’t know how these young bucks are getting by these days, what with the wages they’re getting in the mill now. Used to be, a kid could go to work out of high school, whether he graduated or not, and in six months or so you’d see him driving around town in a brand new Firebird or a Z28 Camaro. There was money to be made here, good wages and benefits and all that. But that was before the recession hit and then, on top of that, the damned owl came along too.

I remember my foreman at the mill coming around and handing out postcards for us to sign against the owl. They were all filled out ahead of time—you just signed ‘em. The yellow ribbons too. That was a big thing. Tie one on your pickup’s antenna to show you were behind what the boss wanted. I put one on mine, not that I trusted the boss any farther than I could toss his worthless ass—or the tree huggers either, for that matter. But I figured if he wants to think I was behind him I’d go ahead and fly the ribbon and let him be wrong.

The strike came along in the middle of all this and that was when it was obvious to everybody that the new owner didn’t actually give a rusty fuck about us. He took over the company from his dad, “Uncle” Billy Carter a few years before, right before the lumber business went sour with the recession, and the old man finally passed away. Ol’ Billy was a good guy, much admired by everybody. He was one of us, you know? Started out with an old Belsaw portable mill and a staked-bed truck back in the thirties and ended up with the biggest mill in the county. He ended up owning a big chunk of the county actually—timber land he bought cheap early on. Like I said, a good guy even if he did get rich. His boy, Eugene, didn’t come out like his pappy. He went off to college back east there at one of those places where the rich kids go.

Well, the strike started over the new contract. We’d been working under the old contract for two years past when it should have been expired. The union kept extending it though, hoping to get back to the pay we had before the cuts we’d agreed to during the recession. The company had promised to restore the old deal if we’d just cut them some slack during the hard times. “You boys are gonna need to tighten your belts or we’ll go tits-up,” they told us. Well, that and the word was the tree huggers were liable to put us all out of work anytime soon, so that kinda left us with not much choice. So, we gave in that time, figuring Uncle Billy would take care of us.

The new contract was another pay cut on top of the one we already had, and it left the union in a bind. If our reps gave in, our guys would lose respect for the union and be pissed at them for not standing up to them. The contract was so bad it was insulting really, so they had to call a strike when the company wouldn’t budge. It was almost what we call a “lock-out,” which is when a company shuts itself down to starve out the workers.

It went on for five months and, in the end, we signed for everything the company wanted.

When I think back on it, what I remember most is Henry Sullivan. Henry was a loud-mouthed little shit and he’d been getting a lot of flak for supporting the tree-huggers before the strike. Some of the guys had been hassling him, leaving notes on his windshield and bad-mouthing him in the lunchroom, giving him the finger when they’d see him in town. To tell the truth, I was a bit pissed at him myself, with him siding with the folks that were trying to put us all out of work just to save a damn hoot-owl. So, you know, I figured he had it coming and didn’t much feel sorry for him. I told him once that it was his own fault for not keeping his mouth shut but he just told me to go fuck myself, which was pretty-much his answer to everybody who tried to talk him out of writing those letters to the paper and posting stuff up on the lunchroom board.

Funny thing is, when the strike went on and on, I came around to liking Henry. Sometimes you need a little shit like him. He was a real fireball, out there on the picket line every day and telling everyone to hold on tight, standing up at the meetings and reminding everybody of how other strikes had gone on longer and how old-time union folks had been attacked and killed just for asking for some decent pay and decent working hours. When the union business agents said it was time to call the strike off and just vote for the contract, he stood up there at the meeting and reamed them out in front of God and everybody.

It didn’t do no good. The vote was for signing with just him and a few others voting against.

Six months after we went back to work, Henry got fired for punching Jimmy Dyer after Jimmy called him a punk-ass bitch one afternoon at work. I’ve often wondered if somebody didn’t put Jimmy up to that, you know, just to get him fired because, with an insult like that, Henry didn’t have any real choice but to throw a punch. After that, he never could find any work around here. Once somebody knew his name it was all over. The company pretty-much owns this county and you’d be hard-pressed to find a businessman in this neck of the woods who will buck the company.

Well, the last I heard, he’d gone up north there, got run clean out of the county. Well, I’m glad I kept my mouth shut and kept my job but, to tell you the truth, I’m kinda glad he didn’t.



Robert Leo Heilman

Robert Leo Heilman is the author of three books of essays including overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country. Robert recommends UCAN Food Bank and the Douglas County Library Foundation.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Tuesday, January 30, 2024 - 20:58